(Screenshot via plsephilly.org)
As the first state to implement the Clean Slate Law in 2018, Pennsylvania committed to sealing millions of criminal records. The law was enacted to remove educational and vocational disadvantages for people with eligible records, including those associated with certain misdemeanors and people found not guilty in court.
While the law cleared barriers to housing, education and employment for individuals across the state, it indirectly created new technological barriers for Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE).
Since 2010, PLSE has worked toward more equitable outcomes for low-income individuals who have had contact with the Pennsylvania criminal justice system. A primary service that PLSE provides is aiding individuals in filing expungement petitions. Unlike the sealing of records, information eligible for expungement may be removed entirely. The process ensures that this information, including records of arrests that did not lead to a conviction, will no longer be seen by law enforcement agencies or employers who use FBI background checks.
With the passage of the Clean Slate law, however, PLSE staff realized that they would lose access to court records they relied on to help their clients. As a further complication, the technology PLSE had in place to fill out expungement applications would no longer be useful.
In response to these challenges, Code for Philly partnered with PLSE to develop tools that would help them continue serving over 1,000 clients annually with only a few full-time staff. An initial priority was a race to preserve existing court records before PLSE lost access to them. After developing a scraper tool using Python and Scrapy, Code for Philly volunteers were able to preserve these records as well as devise methods for scraping dockets on a daily basis and storing the data locally.
Following this success, the project team has focused on speeding up the preparation of expungement petitions. The current process for creating expungement petitions at PLSE requires individually searching and uploading dockets. Code for Philly volunteers set out to develop a petition generator that will integrate with a database of dockets and pull the necessary information. The project team included back-end developers using Django and front-end developers using React. When the team needed a development environment to test and refine this tool, Code for Philly created a virtual team machine to get the generator up and running.
Rachel Menth, who began the expungement project as a Code for Philly volunteer, will help manage its completion as a new PLSE staff member. Efficient technology will be essential for PLSE staff to avoid delays in their services and adapt previously in-person activities to current social distancing guidelines under the coronavirus pandemic.
Like PLSE, many civic organizations in Philadelphia are experiencing major transitions while facing the increasing needs of a city under enormous financial strain and civic unrest. Philly nonprofits, including PLSE, would greatly appreciate financial donations during this time.
Want to donate your time and skills? Consider joining a Code for Philly project that matches your interests, whether that’s connecting low-income individuals with legal aid and other resources, addressing the coronavirus pandemic or the opioid epidemic, or helping adoptable pets find their forever homes. Tech, data, and design can be a powerful mode of civic engagement.
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